Frederick Fleet and Charlottesville’s Form Based Code Charrette

FORUM WATCH EDITORIAL

By. Neil Williamson, President

Frederick Fleet photo credit 123peopleI fear we may be at a Frederick Fleet moment with next week’s impending Charlottesville’s Form Based Code Charrette.

Please let me explain.

The technological marvel super ship the Titanic had its maiden voyage delayed by several months due to shipyard repairs to her sister ship.  The voyage was postponed until April 1912.  Four days into the journey, lookout Frederick Fleet spotted an iceberg immediately ahead of Titanic and alerted the bridge.  The First Officer ordered the ship to be steered around the obstacle and the engines to be stopped, but it was too late.

It has been suggested if the Titanic sailed on its original schedule, it never would have encountered the iceberg.

Next week, Charlottesville (and their consultant team) are embarking on a design charrette process that, may have a similar timing issue and may be destined for a Titanic style conclusion.

The Charrette process is an intense design exercise; the word is derived from the French word for “little cart” and refers to the intense work of architects before a deadline.

Charlottesville’s consultant firm DPZ website explains the charrette process:

In a one- to two-week work session, the charrette assembles key decision-makers to collaborate with the DPZ team in information sharing, iterative design proposals, feedback and revisions, organizing a complex project quickly. Professionals and stakeholders identify options that are rapidly prototyped and judged, enabling informed decisions and saving months of sequential coordination.

For projects requiring public participation, the charrette is effective in managing a large audience, encouraging input and producing valuable political and market feedback. The dynamic and inclusive process, with frequent presentations, is a fast method of identifying and overcoming obstacles. The shared experience helps vest interest in the design and build support for the vision. A number of DPZ charrettes have concluded with a final presentation during a city council voting to approve the plan!

In my limited experience, charrettes are fast paced, deadline driven and can feel a touch rushed even with the buy in from all stakeholders.  That hardly describes the current Charlottesville environment.

In recent months, even prior to the August 12th events, Charlottesville’s efforts to create a Form Based Code for the Strategic Investment Area (SIA) has been met with significant community concerns regarding gentrification and affordable housing.  In a meeting last week, one resident said,

You can’t ask a room full of white people to make zoning changes in low income neighborhoods

In an April affordable housing community meeting at Mt. Zion First African American Baptist Church, an attendee raised concerns about the SIA plan and the plan’s lack of commitment to the existing community.  One resident stated,

The City Council has knives in all the Charlottesville citizens back.

In last week’s meeting, a leader in the affordable housing community questioned whether the SIA plan was a valid starting point and questioned the City position that it was developed with significant community input.  He also questioned the “power structure” within the charrette process as well as the ability of residents to attend meetings held during the day.

Into this tense environment, a team of Form Based Code experts and consultants are arriving in town on Monday.  Tasked with producing a community supported set of Form Based Code concepts in a week’s time, the consultant Form Based Code Institute will be operating in an “open door” studio in the IX Art Park Event Space (522 2nd St SE).

Specific meetings are scheduled throughout the week

Specific Focus Groups:

Zoning—Mon. September 11 4:00 pm

Housing—Tues. September 12 10:00 am

Property Owners—Tues. September 12, 1:30 pm

Public Works—Wed. September 13, 11:30 am

Planning Commission—Wed. September 13,  4:00 pm

Presentations:

Opening Presentation—Tues, September 12 6:00 pm

Final Presentation—Thurs. September 14 @ 6:00 pm

Beyond definitions of Form Based Codes, two affordable housing concepts were discussed at last week’s meeting: additional height in exchange for affordable housing units or expedited development proposal review for reaching a certain percentage of affordable housing.  One resident suggested that form based code’s goal is to make review process easier.  The consultant replied, we would never make the approval process so easy that it could not be expedited.

Another idea to reduce the cost of building in the SIA was to reduce parking requirements by providing city owned structured parking in support of residential uses.  Considering structured parking is mandated in the SIA, this might be a concept that could save upwards of $20,000 a unit.

The reality is Charlottesville needs more housing, across all price points. We continue to believe one of the key hurdles to creating more housing (affordable and otherwise) is the oppressive regulatory environment; we believe a well crafted Form Based Code coupled with public investment and financial incentives could jump start development in the SIA.

While the Free Enterprise Forum believes that Form Based Code has great potential to provide predictability of outcomes and allow some use flexibility, we are very concerned that the years of work that has brought the project this far may be thwarted due to the current political environment.

To that end I am reminded of a comment from another resident in the April Mt. Zion meeting,

You’re going to come here from somewhere else, and tell us what to do

Anything that comes out of the charrette process will still need to go through the Planning Commission and City Council approval process.

Considering the current climate, I am reminded of Titanic crewman (and survivor) Frederick Fleet who was on duty when he saw a black mass ahead of the ship. He struck three bells and telephoned the bridge. Though the ship swung out of the way, he watched as an iceberg scraped the starboard side.

The Free Enterprise Forum is ringing the bell.

We fear this ill timed, but worthy, Form Based Charrette exercise will be met with a similar fate.

It is a shame.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.

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